Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
“Will do.” said Lagenfeld.
“All are now here. Today then we can already get down to the real work.”
Lagenfeld parodied a look of dismay, waved, and told the driver of the car to take him on down the road. Together, Joe and Schneider went into the house.
The quarters were palatial. Joe found himself shaping a silent whistle as he looked around the room allotted to him. Everything was perfect.
. Even the books on the shelves of the bookcase were ones he loved. The furniture was cleanly designed in a practical style that he as an engineer appreciated at first glance. The layout of the room and the adjacent shower room were obviously the result of patient time-and motion analysis. On one wall was a photograph of Earth from somewhere in the region of
orbit. On another was a Dali—
Premonition of Civil War
. Joe shook his head wonderingly. He recalled that one of the psychologists at the project had spent an hour with him going over his likes and dislikes in literature, art and music. Obviously, the purpose hadn’t simply been to furnish an apartment for him—but they had made good use of what they had been told.
A photograph cube lying on its side on the shelf at the head of the divan-bed caught his attention. Automatically he went across to pick it up and straighten it. When he did, he caught his breath and held it.
It was a head and shoulders color portrait of Maggie. Etched in the substance of the cube, and forming a sort of halo around her hair, was a message in her handwriting:
I wish I could be with you, too
The letters had obviously been triggered by setting the cube right side up; after half a minute they faded, and there was only the portrait.
Joe shook his head again and put the cube down. A warm feeling flooded his mind. Suddenly he realized that in spite of everything Schneider had said about him not being frightened,
deep down he had been scared stiff. The fear was going, diminishing like ebbing tide. In its place there came a sort of cautious confidence.
Whistling, glancing every now and again at the portrait in the cube and remembering the feel of Maggie’s hair on his cheek, remembering the sound of her voice until it almost seemed that the message in the cube had been spoken, Joe attended to what was necessary: a quick shower, a change into fresh clothes from the baggage that had been delivered before he arrived. He was brushing his hair when a knock came at the door and Schneider entered after his reply.
“I think we might go for breakfast, yes?” Schneider proposed. Joe nodded and set down his brushes.
“Doc, this is a fabulous setup they’ve given us! I was expecting a sort of emergency barrack! Is it a kind of hearty breakfast for the condemned man?”
His voice was light, and when he turned to face the other he was smiling. But there was no answering smile on Schneider’s face. Preferring to take the remark literally, he answered, “It is simply for us to be comfortable.”
“I like.” Joe gave another appreciative glance around the room. “Good functional. No waste. No fuss. By the way—was that picture your idea, doc?”
Schneider would have appeared to be preening himself if he hadn’t been such an essentially dignified person. He said, “I hoped you might like to be welcomed in such a way.”
“Thanks. It was a wonderful idea.”
“You sound suddenly almost excited, Joe. Can I take it that you are no longer disturbed by the possibilities that are ahead for you—for us all?”
Joe laughed, and held the door for Schneider to go out. “You can just say I feel pretty good,” he said.
“I am glad. Doubtless, condemned or not, your appetite is also a healthy one.”
A sort of shadow passed across his face as he spoke. Joe barely caught sight of it, but he could not mistake it. He frowned.
“Doc, you’re worried, aren’t you?”
Falling into step beside him as they left the house and headed towards the building which Lagenfeld had pointed
out as the main canteen, Schneider shrugged. “I am a little,” he admitted.
“Is it just the same thing that’s worrying everyone else? The consequences of failure?”
“Not altogether.” Schneider stared ahead, unseeing. “I carry—you must understand—most of the responsibility. On me everything turns for I was in charge and still am of the selection project. It is an equivocal position in which I find myself. We act by logic, as I remember saying to you already. But we cannot make our subconscious subject to logic, can we?”
Joe shook his head, saying nothing.
“I must thank you for this, however, Joe,” Schneider went on after a pause. “Everything you do or say makes me feel more than right in suggesting you as the—a candidate.”
“I’m the one who’s supposed to be having confidence in you,” said Joe; staring at him.
“Then it is good that we each create confidence in the other. Come, let us test the edge of that appetite in here, and talk of other things while we eat.”
There were four people in the recreation room. His colleagues. His rivals. But he didn’t go on with that idea. Later, he had the impression that any risk of his regarding the others as competition had been prevented by the casual, careful way in which Schneider had always spoken of the “other candidates” as colleagues. He had conveyed by manner and tone a subtle assumption that each of them wanted to secure the best possible choice for the vital test looming ahead.
The room itself was not large—about the size of the one that had been allotted as his own quarters. It was warm in color with a comfortable array of furniture. At a table, leaning forward on their elbows and concentrating on a game of chess, were two of the candidates—a slender woman in a sari, whose long sleek black hair was twisted up over her head and held in place with an ivory clasp exquisitely carved, and a stolid-looking man with a square face, determined chin, very powerful legs revealed by his short pants.
In two of the easy chairs, reading, were the others. On the left, near the phono-tape cabinet, a round-faced woman with eyes like sloes, wearing glasses and a rather drab but wellcut
tunic shirt which somehow conveyed the air of being a uniform. She was reading a thick gaudy-covered novel. On the right, a dark brown man—also wearing glasses—reading a set of proofs and pausing to mark a printing error with a fountain pen. He was slim, nervous-looking, and had a face which was almost positively ugly. But he was the first to glance up to see who had entered, and when he did, his face was transformed by a white-toothed smile.
“Good morning,” said Schneider, walking forward. There was a chorus of replies which sounded to Joe oddly like the chorused greeting of school children when the teacher entered for the first lesson of the day. He repressed a desire to smile and followed Schneider forward.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your game,” he said to the chess-players, and the stolid man sat back, spreading his hands.
“It matters not at all,” he said, in good but poorly inflected English. “I believe I must resign—it is
in five moves”
He glanced at the Indian woman, who nodded and smiled, and dropped the pieces back in their box before setting the board aside.
Schneider tugged one of the vacant easy chairs around with his foot until it faced the rest of the room, and then dropped into it. He rested his elbows on its arms, clasped his hands, and smiled.
“Well, we are now all here,” he said. “Shall we make a last concession to superstition and say we hope for good luck? From now on, it is logic that we must obey, without risking reliance on instinctive feelings. We must get to know one another first, of course—Joe, please sit!—and therefore I would like to propose that we make ourselves acquainted. I would like you to describe yourselves without modesty please, as fully and completely as you possibly can. I will if you like begin by presenting myself. My name is Fridrich Schneider, and all my friends call me Fritz. I am fifty-three years old. The reason I do not sometimes speak perfect English is that I was born in Salzburg, in Austria, and I did not learn English until I studied psychology in England when I was twenty-one. I am a psychologist, not a psychiatrist; I have only for a short time been in curative work, many years ago. Aside from that, I have been studying always the physical aspect of the
process of thought. I have a degree in cybernetics as well as in psychology. I am well known in my field. I have done work on the electrical implantation of nervous impulses, on human adaptation, on the early diagnosis of nervous disease and on other subjects.
“When the selection project was instituted, I was invited to manage it. I have personally supervised the breakdown of the records concerning all of you here, and of many, many rejected candidates. Lastly, I am regarded by most authorities as being the greatest living expert in my field. I should now like you, Joe, to describe yourself to us.”
The transition from autobiography to the last sentence took Joe by surprise. He blinked and laughed shortly.
“Ah—well, all right. My name is Joseph Hardy Morea—Joe to my friends and practically everyone else. I’m thirty-two years old. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and went through school there; then I took a degree in engineering and physics at MIT, and after that I decided to try and get into space engineering, so I volunteered for the physical course at the North Australian Institute. I got through, and then I spent a year working on the hull-structure of
. I made out pretty well up there, and I turned up a few new ideas which people had contrived to overlook, and when I was sent for by Dr. Schneider I was almost through my third tour up there.”
“Joe,” said Schneider, “I said without modesty. Please add to that.”
Joe hesitated and shrugged. “All right,” he said after the pause. “I got the best degree of my year at MIT, and I was head of my course at North Australian. I designed the dust-piercing nose for
—that’s the thing that shoves interstellar dust aside while she’s still below light-speed—and pilot tests show it stands up pretty well. Just lately I figured out a way of welding metal using polarization of molecular binding forces. And for some reason till I came along no one had thought of photo-polymerizing plastics in free space—that wrinkle meant that anything shipped up from Earth could be lighter by the amount of hydrogen which would have been in it, and comes as the raw material instead of as fragile parts that have to be packed in cotton-wool. So now we’re collecting our hydrogen on the spot and manufacturing
things like instrument boards and furniture for the crew’s quarters right there. I don’t think there’s any more to add.”
“Fair enough,” said Schneider with a smile. “Would you like to go on?” He nodded at the Indian woman, who leaned back in her chair, reflexively adjusting her sari at her waist.
“My name is Rohini Das,” she said, and Joe felt an expression of amazement cross his face. Before he could help it, he had leaned forward eagerly.
Rohini Das?” he said. “The mathematician?”
Rohini Das gave him a half smile. She had clearly been extraordinarily lovely in her teens, Joe reflected, but like rather many Indian women she was now settling towards a comfortable plumpness. She glanced at Schneider, who indicated with a nod that she should go on.
“Well, I am twenty-eight years old, and I was born in India, not far from Agra. Now I work at the Higher Education Institute of Travancore, where I teach mathematics and classical literature. This strikes some people as strange, but not myself. I was not well educated, but I had a good friend, an old man who had known the famous mathematician Ramajuna when he was alive, and I was taught something of algebra and so on when I was fifteen. I liked it, and then I read some scientific journals my good friend owned, and I saw a mistake in a calculation, so when I was eighteen people subscribed for me to go and study mathematics because I had discovered what is now called the generator function of the hyperspatial series. To me it was just—how shall I put it?—it was like something aesthetically satisfying; it had to be like that because it was right. But then Dr. Crown in New York showed that it led to a means of transferring energy from one place to another instantaneously or at any rate of providing a signal much faster than light, so it turned out to be important, and I think our friend Mr. Morea from the starship knows more about what happened to it after that than I do. Everyone became very angry when, instead of studying mathematics, I started to write a long poem about Akbar, the famous Indian conqueror, but when they read it they said it was wonderful, so I got my post which I have been at for six years.”
She chuckled. “I am afraid that whoever selected me was careless—I would probably treat Gyul Kodran like one of my obnoxious students”
Schneider gave an answering smile, and turned to her partner in the chess game. The stolid man spoke rapidly in a voice like a machine.
“Name is Stepan Prodshenko. Age thirty years and two months. Born in Sverdlovsk where my father was a factory manager and my mother a teacher. My father is a hero of soviet labor. I studied physics at the Marx-Lenin High School in Sverdlovsk and then at Moscow University, obtaining a Khrushchev prize for my doctorate thesis. I am now engaged in theoretical research into the nature of the matter-energy exchange in meson transformation. I am also an athlete, and have an Olympic silver medal for the five-thousand meter race; I am also a licensed teacher of gymnastics. I am single. Thank you.”
“I think you might have added,” said Schneider gentry, “that you sing first tenor parts with the Moscow University Choir.”
Prodshenko’s stolid mask lasted a fraction of a second. Then he suddenly gave a boyish grin and threw his hands up in the air. He said, “But that is only a hobby for me! I love to sing!” And everyone chuckled.
“Mrs. King?” said Schneider, turning to the spectacled woman.
“Yes,” she said in a soft, rather high voice—higher than her round face and rather thick set body would have suggested. “Well, my name is King Ti-Pao, or
in the Western style, and I am thirty-six years old. I am a widow; my husband and child were killed by lightning ten years ago. I am a biologist; I have been fortunate to work with Professor Ji-Lao in Hankow for many years and have studied all aspects of the subject, particularly the genetical aspect. I was with the professor during his celebrated experiments with the spawn of frogs in which he contrived to produce an entirely new animal which had never been seen before by chemical and radiative manipulation of the gene material. You will know about this, perhaps.”